When a family matter turns into a business pt 3

The issue of appointed conservators, as they are called in California, or as appointed guardians, as they are called in Florida, is one that needs to be handled so that the person who is being forced into this situation is not being ripped off by people who are out for a fast buck. The stories that are listed in the Los Angeles Times are a litany of how elderly people have been tricked into becoming the wards of these professional conservators.

The law that was originally enacted was meant to make it easier for family members to administer the estates of their loved ones who were no longer able to look after themselves. However, things changed when a university economics professor became the first to set himself up in the business of professional conservator. In the end he was forced to get out of the business because of the complaints that were made against him. This did not stop the growing number of these "professional" conservators. In fact this had become a new "professional" industry. The stories that have been outlined in the Los Angeles Times report have shown that even if this is a growing professional industry, it is not an industry that is both professional and ethical.

To recap on Helen's story, she was tricked into signing a piece of paper that gave her rather unscrupulous conservator the right to control her "wealth" and possessions. Helen had always been a frugal woman and it was distressing to her that the conservator was wasting so much of her money on things that she considered to be an unnecessary addition to her home. What is worse, for Helen at least, the conservator had used information on her medical records against her, and tried to force her into taking medication for a mental illness that is mentioned in her records, and which it might be considered that it is debatable that she has this particular illness.

In each of the illustrated cases it has become clear that once a person is committed to the clutches of the professional conservators, there is almost no way that they can reverse the court decision. This is the same scenario that is happening all over the USA, and for the Schindler family, it meant the unnecessary and untimely death of their daughter, Theresa Marie Schindler-Schiavo - there was no way that George Greer was going to reverse his decision (was there a kickback?). Some of the hapless victims have been very wealthy, such as Donald Van Ness, a former owner of a candy company, who did not know that a conservator had been appointed until he tried to use his credit card. The unscrupulous way in which the conservators have behaved has led to a lot of litigation for the hapless victims and their families, having to even fight to find out where the family member had been taken.

The misuse of their clients’ funds, deliberately selling off assets to either friends or family and a number of other practices that have caused hardship, and perhaps in some cases have led to the untimely death of the victim because of neglect, are just some of the litany of charges that have been leveled at these unscrupulous conservators.   These conservators have a power that is quite frightening, and when one considers the fact that instead of being family members, as intended by the original legislation, they are strangers who are out to enrich themselves at the expense of their hapless victims. How else can one explain the fact that one woman’s estate was billed by her conservator because he attended her funeral? The amount billed was $1700, and this kind of charging is just the tip of the iceberg.

How do these professional conservators manage to take control over the lives of their unwary victims? They do it at such a speed that the families of their victims do not even have the opportunity to prevent the conservatorship happening in the first place. The Los Angeles Times reporters state:

“In many courtrooms, they get emergency appointments on the day they ask for them, based on short forms in which they swear that prospective clients cannot care for themselves.
These hasty hearings are meant for cases in which elderly people are in imminent danger. But professional conservators have made them the norm, The Times found. More than half of their Southern California cases began this way.Adults are entitled by law to attend emergency hearings. Yet they were not formally notified in more than half the cases The Times examined. Often, judges dispensed with the requirement after conservators told them that prospective wards were too feeble to come to court.By securing immediate appointments, professionals can gain control over elders before safeguards required in non-emergency cases kick in. For example, in nine of 10 emergency cases, wards were not interviewed by a court investigator before a judge decided they needed a conservator.”

The Times discovered at least 50 cases where the conservators had used their clients’ money to enrich themselves. Some clients, such as Mr. Charles Thomas, who had built up his fortune by establishing Burger King Franchisees, have had their estates and fortunes plundered by the unscrupulous. One of the problems with the current laws is that the law does not set down what is reasonable. This leaves the way open for exorbitant charges by these conservators. In the case of Mr. Thomas, the conservator, Lablow plundered the estate for more than $1 million in fees alone.

The enrichment does not end with the charging of exorbitant fees, for in one case a Sacramento conservator used his girl-friend’s firm to auction off the possessions of his wards. In another case, a San Francisco conservator decorated his apartment with the Chinese paintings that were the possession of his ward. In another case, Melodie Scott allowed her sister-in-law to live in a house owned by one of her wards, rent free. The owner of the house was a woman who, at the age of 51 suffered from bipolar disorder. Scott told the court that neither she, nor Sarah Kerley had enriched themselves at the expense of this client. However, whilst Kerley lived in the house, the client’s funds paid for the thousands of dollars worth of utility bills that had been racked up. The woman had been moved from her own house so that Kerley and Scott could in fact benefit from the situation.

In another case, that of Florrie Fairfield, a wealthy former real estate agent, she was placed in the hands of a conservator on the grounds that she suffered from a form of Alzheimer’s disease and it was necessary to ensure that no one took advantage of her. However, the conservator who was assigned to this woman ended up being the beneficiary of Fairfield’s multimillion dollar estate. In California at least, the guardians are not supposed to be able to benefit in this way. There are supposed to be checks and balances in place, but it seems that in this case, these steps were not taken. The female conservator covered herself from infringing the law by ensuring that the will named the company as the beneficiary and not herself. This is not good enough and this woman should have been charged with defrauding her client.

These are the cases that have been the tip of the iceberg in California, where the law had tried to protect those who needed to take over the care of their family members, but where professionals moved in and started to bleed their victims’ estates dry. For the families involved in these cases there have been costly legal battles against these strangers who have entered into their lives. In some respects the stories outlined by the Los Angeles Times have a familiar ring, for there are stories to be told from Florida, through to Washington and New York of people who are being ripped off by these unscrupulous strangers. One common thread that has come to light in the stories is the mention of the requirement to file returns. Once again we see an issue that is being raised  - the non-compliance by the conservators for the filing of these returns.

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